By Andres Hernandez
Head-mounted displays (HMDs) have long been the stuff of science fiction flicks and childhood dreams. I know I sure wanted one after seeing The Lawnmower Man! In many ways, HMDs were at the core of the virtual reality movement of the late 80’s and early 90’s. The idea is that the headset would contain two miniaturized screens (typically LCD displays), one for each eye. By displaying slightly different images on each screen, the user would be presented with a stereoscopic view of a virtual world. A head-tracker could also be used to allow the wearer to freely rotate their head around while having their view in the virtual world change accordingly. HMDs were usually cost prohibitive, and only affordable to academia or government entities. Over time, consumer models were gradually released that were more reasonably priced and consumer friendly. Today we will be looking at one of these consumer-level HMDs – the latest effort from the Vuzix corporation. Will the Vuzix Wrap 1200VR live up to the hype, or is it just another pretender?
Let me preface this review with the knowledge that I have tested a number of consumer-level HMDs over the years. This includes previous models from Vuzix: the VR920 and Wrap 310, and also older headsets like the Sony Glasstron and i-O Display i-glasses. I even got to try the Visette from the long defunct Virtuality arcades of the early 90’s. I think this is a fair frame of reference to judge this new Vuzix headset.
Vuzix has produced an attractive looking package here. Even though you couldn’t pass these off as regular sun-glasses in public, they are a lot more stylish than most generic head mounted displays.
Behind the shades are two WVGA LCDs displays, in-ear head-phones, and a few ergonomic adjustments including an inter-pupillary distance (IPD) slider and a diopter adjustment. These adjustments let users customize the glasses for individual needs like prescription glasses, the distance between the eyes, etc.
The package also includes the Wrap Tracker 6TC, a 6-DOF (degrees of freedom) motion-tracking device that can be plugged into the glasses. The unit also includes an adjustable nose-piece and a neck-strap which proved essential. The Wrap 1200VR is based on VGA connection. While Vuzix’s website claims a DVI/VGA adapter is included, I didn’t find one included. I had a few extras lying around, so it wasn’t a problem. Unfortunately, the VGA and USB cables coming out of the adapter are extremely short. This is fine for a notebook computer, but not for a full sized desktop PC! In my case, I had to buy a separate VGA and USB extension cable. Cables like these are inexpensive, and it’s good to buy them in advance. I also bought a Wrap Lightshield separately as it’s not included in the package.
When I first wore the glasses, I was both impressed and disappointed. Impressed because Vuzix addressed some of the major complaints I had about their previous headsets. I was also disappointed because they introduced new problems which made the Wrap 1200VR a mixed bag.
On the plus side, the virtual screen size was definitely larger than previous Vuzix glasses I have used. I most frequently used the Wrap 310, which has an FOV of 26 degrees, so this new model felt a lot bigger. The IPD slider did wonders for getting the displays in proper view, and the actual picture quality was a definite improvement. Experienced gamers will be pleased to know that Vuzix solved the problem with older models where the screens would be badly darkened on the sides.
The first thing I did was load up the 1080P Tron Legacy trailer on YouTube, and it actually looked alright. Maybe not as great as I had hoped but, for a few moments, I did sort of feel that movie theater experience. During viewing, the glasses were light and comfortable to wear, and audio sounded pretty good.
However, the Wrap 1200VR is far from perfect. I think Vuzix chose lenses that just barely seem to be the right size because it’s necessary to get your eyes extremely close to the lenses to see the screens properly. If you are not in the right position, then part of the image gets cropped and becomes blurred. This is upsetting because it’s the same issue that was faced with the original VR920, and later fixed with more recent Wrap models…now the problem is back again. Not a deal breaker because it can be remedied with adjustments, but I would have liked larger sized lenses as were seen on the Wrap 310.
The diopter adjustment range is too shallow. Since I wear prescription glasses, I was hoping the lenses could focus enough so that I wouldn’t need to wear them. Unfortunately the range is so low, it just barely reaches my prescription (which is -2.5). Again, this was a problem solved with the older Wrap models, and it has resurfaced. If your glasses prescription is as strong as mine, this new headset will be a little blurry without wearing glasses. In fact, I think the image could be even sharper, but maybe that’s just me. Now that I have to wear glasses, it becomes more difficult to get the screens fully in view due to the small lenses. I sorted this problem out while wearing glasses, and I was surprised that I could wear the HMD and my glasses at the same time.
Since this is a display device, the product’s value is determined by the display quality. As a whole, the picture quality is decent, and is an improvement over previous Vuzix models. While colors are fairly accurate, they can seem over-saturated at times. You can adjust the image further to make it look rich.
The resolution detail leaves something to be desired, and I would say its equivalent is perhaps as high DVD quality. In comparison to the latest 1080P monitors, this is a little low-end, but it’s reasonable for a portable head-mounted display. The glasses can receive resolutions up to 1280×720 and downscale to what the HMD can actually display (854×480). They can also be run at 1024×768 or 800×600, however these resolutions will either stretch the image or lose 30% of the screen to compensate for the difference in aspect ratio. For gaming and video purposes, 720P worked the best.
The biggest problem was Windows itself because the headset is down-scaling a 1280×720 image to 854×480. This conversion is passable for video and games, but for small text (e.g. web-browsing, etc.) it takes a big toll on image quality. I could get around Windows: open the control panel and change settings, load up Steam and choose a game, etc. This is doable, it’s just impractical when lots of text is involved. However, Vuzix is not promoted as a monitor replacement, and is specifically marketed for gaming and video usage.
While watching 2D videos on this kit isn’t bad, the quality is diminished in 3D mode because the side by side format already loses 50% of the resolution before it gets to the display. It’s a reasonable tradeoff because a lot of existing software already supports the device including video applications like the Stereoscopic Player, gaming drivers like iZ3D and DDD, YouTube3D, and lots more. So software support is great, but it would have been better if Vuzix found a way to also include HDMI 1.4a compliance. This way, the full 720P image would be directly down-scaled to native, instead of having two scaling steps and blurring the image. Below, you can see a 3D video taken through the glasses, which should give you an idea of what to expect of the image quality.
Vuzix advertises the Wrap 1200VR as a virtual 75” screen at 10 feet. While this figure is technically accurate, it’s somewhat misleading. It really depends on the environment you are in and how your brain interprets the size. For example, if I am sitting in front of my computer desk wearing the headset, but still with my monitor in view, then the virtual image looks somewhat small. I would say it appears like a 23” monitor at 2 feet. However, I usually sit a little closer than 2 feet from my 23” monitor, so in this scenario the headset seems small. However, if I use it in my living room and look at the far wall (lets say about 20 feet away) then the image looks almost like being in the back of a small movie theater. When using the light-shield in an open space, it’s a little harder to tell how big the screen equates to, but it’s big enough to see whats happening in the movie or game.
Gaming in 3D is one of the most immersive experiences out there, and the Wrap 1200VR is designed for this purpose. Vuzix includes software called VRManager, and thankfully supports Windows XP/Vista/7 32-bit or 64-bit and with either AMD or Nvidia GPUs. It adds stereo 3D graphics to about 125 games. Unfortunately, many of these are older titles (e.g. the original Lead4Dead, but not the sequel). There are some gems in there, though, including Assassin’s Creed, Batman: Arkham Asylum, Crysis, Half-Life 2, World of Warcraft, and more. In order to play the games in 3D, you need to activate them in the VRManager. This is actually a little harder than you would expect. While the software has no problems finding the games installed on a system, you have to install a patch for the games, and this can be problematic. Even though it only has to copy a few files into the game’s directory, it’s not very smart when it comes to finding the right directory. I got the patch to work automatically only once with Crysis because that game was installed in the default directory. Most of the time I had to right-click on the game name and then choose the correct directory. Even then, this didn’t always work. I then had to read through the Vuzix help file, which has instructions on how to manually copy the files. After doing all this, then I got my games to work.
It’s troubling that Vuzix hasn’t found a better method for implementing their driver. This is the type of stuff that was broken back when I reviewed the VR920, and four years later the software still has these bugs. Thankfully there are third party solutions that provide 3D gaming in the proper SBS format, but it would have been nice if the included software worked out-of-the-box.
While the 3D is pretty cool, the FOV is still on the small side, and it doesn’t leave you totally immersed in the game. At first it may seem like a “tunnel vision” experience, but it grows more natural once you start playing. It’s not the same quality that you get on a nice 3D monitor or big-screen 3D HDTV, but it’s cross-talk free which is nice.
The 3D provided by the Vuzix driver was often flat, and I did not find an easy way to adjust this. So what you see is what you get. I know the 3D on the headset can be nice, because I was able to crank up the settings on the iZ3D driver with Mirror’s Edge and the experience was pretty amazing. I was almost getting vertigo in some parts due to the great 3D. Unfortunately, Vuzix doesn’t provide hot-keys or any way to adjust the 3D settings (aside from manually editing config files, which is not practical). Another issue I found with the Vuzix software was that the 3D mode image quality could become too blurry. At first, I thought this was because of the side-by-side image format, but iZ3D’s driver didn’t have this problem. There must be some kind of bug that causes an unnecessary drop in resolution detail. This made what appeared to be 2D DVD quality drop to something closer to 3D VHS. Hopefully this can be fixed with future updates.
In addition to supporting totally ghost-free stereoscopic 3D images, the headset includes a head-tracker too. This means that in titles that support it, you can move your head around and it will change the view inside the game. Most of the supported titles have simple mouse-emulation, though others have full tracking support. Full support means it includes all three degrees of freedom (yaw, pitch and roll). These options are most popular with simulation titles like racing or flight simulators. The exception to this rule is Unreal Tournament 2004 (UT2004) which is one of my favorite games to play in 3D.
With the Vuzix VRManager software, you are able to add both 3D and head-tracking to UT2004 and has top-notch results. There are a variety of modes to choose from: for example, the head and gun can move independently. It’s quite an experience to test this by standing up and just looking around.
The 6TC tracker is really good, and arguably one of the best I have seen to date. It’s a huge improvement over the built-in version used on the VR920. This new tracking option has no jitter and is very smooth. There is a minor lag caused by the smoothing algorithm, but you only notice this if you move your head very fast. The tracker also gets confused if you look straight up or straight down, but it’s accurate for the most part.
I also tested rFactor, which is a slightly older racing simulator. The tracking was again really nice, and it added immersion to be able to look out the windows and such. Unfortunately not every game supports this level of tracking, and many games don’t support it at all – but when it works, it’s very good.
While the Wrap 1200VR has grown on me, I have run into a number of quirks. Probably the most annoying is that you have to manually change to and from 3D mode manually. For games, this isn’t a big deal because the Vuzix software can automatically switch the 3D mode when it activates. I think its supposed to also switch back to 2D when you quit, but this didn’t always work. The bigger issue is with stuff like YouTube3D. If you want to watch a 3D video you have to queue it up and then press a few buttons on the controller to switch the 3D mode. When the video is over, you can’t just search for another video or click a link – you have to switch out of 3D mode first. This can grow very annoying if you are watching a series of short clips. For longer movies, this isn’t as much of an annoyance.
This brings me to another problem – I couldn’t find a way to directly watch Blu-Ray 3D. The only method I found was to rip the Blu-Ray and then play with the Stereoscopic Player. While doable, it’s not very practical if you have a large collection of Blu-Ray 3D movies. This is more of a limitation of the Stereoscopic Player (and other 3D video software) not supporting side-by-side format rather than a short-coming of the HMD itself.
Speaking of the side-by-side format, it creates a problematic mouse cursor. For example, with the Vuzix VRManager, it doesn’t create a 3D mouse cursor that is visible in both eyes. So when you enable a game in 3D, the mouse cursor remains in 2D and is only visible in one eye of both eyes. This makes it very difficult to navigate through menus, and the only frame of reference are mouse-over prompts in the user interface. At least with third party drivers, like DDD and iZ3D, there is a 3D mouse cursor, so this is not as much of a problem.
While the VGA adapter control unit worked well, it behaved strangely at times. The down button doesn’t work well (probably just on my specific unit). I would often have to use the up button to scroll all the way through the menu, even if I just wanted to go down a single step. It was a pain.
I also tried the iPod adapter which I use on my Wrap 310, and it didn’t work properly. I was able to watch about a minute of a video, and then the screen went green. I am pretty sure it is supposed to be supported, so I don’t know why it didn’t work. The video looked pretty good from the iPod, and I would like to get this working at some point.
Surprising, I can’t find a button to turn the screen off! As long as it’s plugged-in – even without a signal – the screen just displays solid blue. I have to unplug the USB cable in order for it to shut off. Why isn’t there a power button?
While this isn’t the biggest issue, it’s annoying that the 3D image on the screen always seems to be cut off a little on the side (off-center), and then loops to the other side. Vuzix provided an adjustment in the menu to fix this, but it doesn’t move enough. There are still about ten to fifteen pixels missing on the edge. Hopefully there will be a firmware update that can remedy this issue.
Here are a few pointers for getting the most out of the Vuzix 1200VR:
- Remove the nose-piece: by removing the nose-piece, you can get your eyes closer to the lenses, and get a clearer view of the screens (not blurred on the edges).
- Hang the unit from your head: by using the included strap, you can move the arms of the glasses about two or three inches above your ear. Now use the strap to hang the unit off the back part of your head. This allows you to look down into the glasses, which is more natural. Combined with removing the nose-piece, it can provide a larger and clearer image.
- Use the Light-shield: you will have to buy it separately, but it’s worth it. Beyond blocking out light, it also provides a soft cushion for your nose. This is important because without the plastic nose-piece, it can get uncomfortable quickly, and the light-shield helps with this. It also helps with getting the screens level with your eyes and makes them easier to see.
The Vuzix Wrap 1200VR provides DVD quality with something you can practically fit in your pocket. You can watch 3D videos and play 3D games on it, and the head-tracker is one of the best on the consumer market. If it seemed like I had a lot of complaints about this product, it’s only because I had very high expectations.
While the picture quality on a Windows desktop leaves something to be desired, it’s not bad and is definitely an improvement over past Vuzix products. That said, for the price, I just don’t see this competing with 3D monitors directly – especially since many of them are growing more and more inexpensive. In comparison to a 1080P image, the Wrap 1200VR’s picture quality is much lower. If faced with a choice, I think the average gamer would be happier spending their money on a nice 3D monitor rather than this Vuzix HMD.
Even so, the 1200VR does have a market with VR enthusiasts. This unit has great head-tracking which can be used with VR-style applications. Its light weight combined with the fact that it’s USB powered means you could easily hook up a 360 degree full-freedom VR setup using a laptop in a back-pack! You would also need a wireless controller, but there are ways to hack one together (for example using a Nintendo Wiimote). While I appreciate that this is getting more into the VR hobbyist/developer market, it’s a real opportunity, and there hasn’t been anything out there to fill this void until now. In this respect, the 1200VR stands alone.
Is the kit worth $600? For the average gamer, I’m not so sure. For VR enthusiasts, this may be the best option for the consumer market. If you want an affordable glimpse of what virtual reality could be like one day, the Vuzix Wrap 1200VR may be your only option…for now!